Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Earth United States Science Politics

Congress Reaches Agreement ... On Helium 255

Posted by timothy
from the this-is-your-voice-on-helium dept.
Despite the wrangling that's resulted in a government shut-down, Congress managed last week to agree on one thing: Helium. Reader gbrumfiel writes: "The U.S. holds vast helium reserves which it sells to scientists and private industry. According to NPR, a new law was needed to allow the helium to continue to flow. Congress passed it late last week, but only after a year-long lobbying effort and intense debate (and in the end, Senator Ted Cruz opposed the measure). Can a new bipartisanship rise out of this cooperation? Or will hot air prevail on Capitol Hill? (Insert your helium joke here.)" Apparently, helium is not yet so scarce that it's not available in balloons at the grocery store.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Congress Reaches Agreement ... On Helium

Comments Filter:
  • Balloons (Score:4, Informative)

    by AmiMoJo (196126) * <mojoNO@SPAMworld3.net> on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @09:27AM (#45001667) Homepage

    Children's balloons use recycled or low grade helium which can't be used for other more worthy purposes. It's not really a waste.

    • Re:Balloons (Score:5, Funny)

      by somersault (912633) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @09:29AM (#45001687) Homepage Journal

      What could be more worthwhile than sounding like a chipmunk for 10 seconds?

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        sounding like a chipmunk for 20 seconds.

        • Re:Balloons (Score:5, Funny)

          by plover (150551) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @09:39AM (#45001813) Homepage Journal

          Laughing at the guy who tried to sound like a chipmunk for 30 seconds, but passed out and fell over!

          • I managed to get through the first verse of 'still alive' on one breath, but by the end of it the edges of my vision were turning green. I recognise this as the first sign that my brain really, really would like some more oxygen, so hurried the last few words and hastily commenced breathing.

        • Please. If I have to sit through another Alvin and the Chipmunks movie I'll scream!
          • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

            by Anonymous Coward

            Please. If I have to sit through another Alvin and the Chipmunks movie I'll scream!

            ... in a high-pitched voice.

      • by dkleinsc (563838)

        According to August Strindberg, Iron and Sulfur [strindbergandhelium.com].

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      ..replace can't with "too expensive right now".

      anyways, come up with that fusion already so there'll be some use for it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Sockatume (732728)

        "Children's balloons use recycled or low grade helium which too expensive right now be used for more worthy purposes."

        What?

        • Re:Balloons (Score:5, Funny)

          by Russ1642 (1087959) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @09:39AM (#45001815)

          As you know, gases are composed of atoms or molecules that are constantly bumping into one another. After a while these collisions can cause dents in the atoms causing them to lose their shine. While ok for balloons and such, medical and aerospace applications require new shiny helium atoms.

        • It's called "balloon air". Supposedly it is the byproduct of helium used for scientific and medical purposes. It's not pure helium. Personally I'm not sure if this is lobbying or true. It certainly sounds plausible.

          • by Sockatume (732728)

            I get that there's a lower grade of helium, but I can't make hide nor hair of what gl4ss was trying to say.

            • Because you can still extract the helium from "low grade" sources - it's just not worth it unless you get a good return on the cost of extracting it.

            • by gl4ss (559668)

              the helium in balloons isn't as far as I know any different isotope or magically soiled. just that purifying it costs a bit. it could be used for the purposes which require pure helium, if it was purified.

            • Ah... What threw me off was that you quoted AmiMoJo rather than gl4ss. I wasn't sure what gl4ss was saying either.

    • Re:Balloons (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @10:00AM (#45002089)
      Balloon grade helium is still 90-95% pure typically. The only reason it is "waste" is because helium is so cheap to get already refined, there is no need to refine it. It is still a symptom of helium prices being really low, at all grades. It is not like helium comes out of the ground at 99.995% pure, and it is not like all science work needs the high purity stuff. Depending on the exact impurities, the helium can be purified with just activated charcoal sometimes, or other times it needs to be separated cryogenicly when there is a large neon impurity.
    • by Joce640k (829181)

      Children's balloons use recycled or low grade helium which can't be used for other more worthy purposes. It's not really a waste.

      LOL!

      It's not 100% helium, it's mixed with air to make it cheaper, but the idea that they couldn't separate it out is silly.

      Also: What's "low grade" helium? Helium is an element, it's one of the few elements that can't be contaminated with anything - it has no stable compounds.

      Separation? Medical/scientific helium is usually liquid. Helium liquifies at a different temperature than air so separation of helium from air would a trivial/automatic part of the cooling process (throw away everything that forms a pu

      • You answered your own question; low grade helium has been mixed with air (or other gases). Not to make it cheaper; it is usually a waste product from other helium uses (and so it *is* cheaper than refined helium, but that's not the point).

        And of course separation is possible, but it's more expensive than buying already-refined helium. This is because the US government has a large reserve of refined helium that it has been selling below cost for many years now, distorting the market.

    • by Hatta (162192)

      And helium cannot be enriched or purified? Is it really better to let a (practically) non-renewable resource escape into space than save it for when it becomes economical to refine?

      • Re:Balloons (Score:5, Interesting)

        by nmr_andrew (1997772) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @01:30PM (#45004639)

        And helium cannot be enriched or purified? Is it really better to let a (practically) non-renewable resource escape into space than save it for when it becomes economical to refine?

        Emphasis mine

        That's exactly what's been happening. Most of the natural gas extractors decided that as long as the government was selling helium at a very low price, it wasn't economical to collect it. AFAIK, Exxon-Mobil has one major site in Wyoming and that's about it (and it's currently down for "maintenance"). Of course, this is complete crap - they just don't want to be bothered.

        Currently the BLM charges $84 per million cubic feet of crude helium [blm.gov] (scroll halfway down the page or so). It takes ~27 cu.ft. of gas to make 1 liter of liquid. We get pretty good pricing and pay roughly $10/L of liquid helium. If we assume it costs $1 to purify and liquefy gas to make one liter, heck, if it costs $5 and the gas is only 50% pure, the "big 3" suppliers aren't losing any money and could easily pay more if the natural gas producers collected and sold the helium.

    • Whew! Thank goodness we aren't wasting it on something frivolous.

    • They also dilute it with air to make it even cheaper - just barely enough helium to lift the balloon and a little string.

  • Thank god we have politicians in America willing to stand up for not doing their jobs.

    • by rujholla (823296) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @09:43AM (#45001859)

      Note from TFA that the disagreement that Senator Cruz had with the bill was that he and the House supported the version of the bill that said that the money from Helium sales should go to defecit reduction and the bill that passed that he voted against had the money going for national parks and "environmental issues."

      • by Bill_the_Engineer (772575) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @09:51AM (#45001949)

        So he voted against a bill that earmarked the funds in favor for a version that uses the funds for "deficit reduction" which is political speak for money into my pork project. Funding is fungible and no one knows how to use smoke and mirrors to hide budgeting irregularities like a congress person.

        At least he didn't waste anyone's time by filibustering it and then voting for it immediately afterwards.

        • by rujholla (823296) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @10:10AM (#45002201)

          Funny. I feel that environmental issues is political speak for putting money into pork projects like Solyndra.

      • by Jawnn (445279)

        Note from TFA that the disagreement that Senator Cruz had with the bill was that he and the House supported the version of the bill that said that the money from Helium sales should go to defecit reduction and the bill that passed that he voted against had the money going for national parks and "environmental issues."

        Wow. I am impressed that Senator Cruz has taken such a principled stand against doing anything to improve our national parks or to protect the environment. That asshole is nothing if not consistent.

      • "Environmental issues" being the code word for pork. Specifically, most of the money from the sale of helium not going to the National Park Service is going to fund a continuation [opb.org] of the Secure Rural Schools Act [wikipedia.org]. The SRSA itself is essentially a hand-out program for dying, rural counties that ran into budget problems after logging and other natural resource extraction activities were significantly scaled back, which had left those counties with no other significant economic activity to tax for income (and t

  • How did the U.S. start stockpiling helium? I see no mention in the article of the actual process for collecting and storing it.

  • by olddoc (152678) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @09:34AM (#45001741)
    I plan to do some deep Scuba dives next month and I will be breathing high quality, pure Helium mixed in with my Oxygen and Nitrogen to prevent Nitrogen narcosis at depth. I'm glad the supply will continue in the future and I hope there is a plan to replace what the US Government has stockpiled.
  • by MouseR (3264) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @09:41AM (#45001831) Homepage

    Apparently, helium is not yet so scarce that it's not available in balloons at the grocery store.

    Depends where you look. Many outlets around the region of Montreal stopped selling helium balloons because of the scarcity. Some voluntarily due to local hospitals having difficulties keeping their MRIs runnings and some due to prices going up.

  • If helium can be produced from renewable natural gas, for example landfills, why not sell off the entire stockpile?

    • by SJHillman (1966756) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @09:50AM (#45001943)

      Helium isn't produced from natural gas, it's found trapped underground in natural gas fields. So unless you can power a hydrogen fusion plant with renewable natural gas, we only have what we can find in the ground for the time being.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by swillden (191260)

        Helium isn't produced from natural gas, it's found trapped underground in natural gas fields. So unless you can power a hydrogen fusion plant with renewable natural gas, we only have what we can find in the ground for the time being.

        OTOH, the earth creates a great deal of new helium every year, as a byproduct of the decay of various radioactive elements in the crust and core. It's not an unlimited resource, but neither is it something we're easily going to deplete even though close to 100% of the helium we use for various purposes ends up being released into the atmosphere and floats off into space.

        • by Nimey (114278)

          Natural decay only produces so much helium so fast, much like petroleum and coal. It's definitely possible to use up what we've got and then not have enough for what's important.

        • No, but we can deplete all the helium that is economical to extract. Then prices will go up. A lot.

    • I am pretty sure that Helium is not produced from natural gas but is extracted from it. Helium is produced and trapped underground via radioactive decay and it happens to get trapped in the same areas as the natural gas gets trapped. The gases being produced in landfills via decay are not helium. Just because you have natural gas doesn't mean you have helium.
    • by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquare AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @10:06AM (#45002157) Homepage Journal

      you are free associating and winding up at an incongruous thought

      helium is associated only with old, deep natural gas deposits. it collects there because radioactive elements decay deep in the earth, releasing helium, and that helium has to go somewhere. if it doesn't percolate up and vent into the atmosphere, it collects with likewise entrapped methane gas deposits

      meanwhile, natural gas from landfills would not have this helium, as it is a much more shallow and much more recent source of methane, it hasn't been around long enough to gather very slowly formed byproducts of radioactive decay

    • by necro81 (917438)
      Your ignorance that "helium comes from natural gas" is understandable, because it is a subtle point usually glossed over in most reporting on the subject.

      Although abundant in the universe, helium on Earth comes from the radioactive decay of certain elements in bedrock, mainly uranium and thorium. The helium tends to migrate up to the surface and, eventually, wafts away into space. However, the helium can be trapped in certain geologic formations, such as salt domes, which also happen to be the kinds
    • by LoRdTAW (99712)

      Pretty much all of the Earths helium slowly accumulated there via radioactive decay over millions or billions of years.

      Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium [wikipedia.org]

      On Earth it is relatively rare - 0.00052% by volume in the atmosphere. Most terrestrial helium present today is created by the natural radioactive decay of heavy radioactive elements (thorium and uranium, although there are other examples), as the alpha particles emitted by such decays consist of helium-4 nuclei. This radiogenic helium is trapped

  • by cirby (2599) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @09:54AM (#45002005)

    Helium production is just lacking. There is more than enough helium - at reasonable concentrations - in many natural gas fields to cover all of the demand on the planet for literally thousands of years, at current rates.

    There are also some helium extraction plants either under construction or in the process of coming on line right now. There's a new one, in Qatar, which will account for 25% of the world's production when it's fully on line. Russia is expanding their own production, and India is starting to build helium extraction into their natural gas production lines.

    The only thing that kept the big natural gas producers in the US from adding helium extraction equipment to their production stream was the artificially-low price mandated by the Federal helium reserve. Some US companies already have their extraction equipment in use, and others are starting to build them. It's not hard - basically 1920s tech.

    • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot AT hackish DOT org> on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @10:36AM (#45002563)

      To be somewhat more precise, there isn't a mandated price, in the sense of formal price controls. But the federal helium reserve accumulated huge stockpiles, and has been slowly selling them off since 1996, which has kept the price low by flooding the market. On the one hand, that discourages private investment, but on the other hand, it's not clear it's entirely a bad thing: if we don't actually need this helium reserve lying around forever, selling it off slowly seems like a reasonable thing to do.

    • Try lobbied price. The private sector has lobbied Congress to keep the low prices. The problem is with the private sector unwilling to give up their cheap supply.
  • by Hartree (191324) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @10:56AM (#45002801)

    Here's a Chemical and Engineering News article from last month about it.
    http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i37/Helium-Headache.html [acs.org]

    The problem isn't the amount of helium in the earth. It's the dislocation caused by the government selling it at an artificially low price for some years, thus undercutting building new refining capacity. This current mess that we just mostly avoided would have been from suddenly shutting off the government supply and causing a price/availability problem.

    Full Disclosure: This effects me directly. I work with Dean Olson, the guy quoted in the article. Unavailability of helium (the price wasn't so bad, but it just wasn't available. i.e. The supplier says it costs N dollars a liter of liquid helium, but you need X liters, and we have one fourth that amount available.) kept a new NMR system here offline for some months, thus delaying a bunch of research (And of course, that has a knock on effect of increased cost down the line. You have to keep paying the salaries of the researchers while they wait and do something else.)

    Hopefully we can get back to our usual form of governmental funding neurosis soon rather than reaching a new and interesting level of insanity.

    • Suddenly? The Federal government for decades has told industry the Federal government is pulling out of the helium business. The private sector has sat on its hands and done nothing. Instead they lobby the Federal government to maintain the helium reserve and continue to sell it at artificially low prices.

      FYI the helium reserve that the Fed maintains will only last another 3-5 years.
      • by Hartree (191324)

        Yes, suddenly.

        That's from the view of the users. Having the reserve shut down on the 7th and not even be able to extract the helium owned by others creates a disruption to the end users. This has been developing for a long time as you say.

        The part about could have and should have makes little difference to the physics when a magnet quenches.

        There's plenty of time for assigning well deserved blame, but it doesn't change the temperature of the magnet "right now".

  • Or will hot air prevail on Capitol Hill? (Insert your methane joke here.)"

    FTFY

  • by Squidlips (1206004) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @02:23PM (#45005339)
    Once it is gone, it is irrevocably gone. We should be a LOT more careful with this resource.

Luck, that's when preparation and opportunity meet. -- P.E. Trudeau

Working...